We’ve finally bitten the bullet this week and started sleep training with Kara to encourage her to go through the night. I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been tough. There has been much protesting, gnashing of teeth and wailing at the kind of decibel levels that would put Maria Sharapova to shame. Or a jumbo jet engine. Or being in the front row of an Iron Maiden concert.
And that’s just Heather and I.
It’s always difficult to tell whether a child who has sleeping troubles is the result of nature, nurture or a little bit of both. But certainly we had to make an intervention of sorts with both Isaac and Toby at a similar age to get them to unlearn their habit of waking up in the middle of the night in expectation of either a feed or a comfort cuddle.
It’s tough on all three of us in different ways.
For Kara, who is just short of ten months, it is a disruption to the only routine she knows. One of an infant’s most fundamental learned behaviours is that if they cry they will draw an immediate response. Not so now. We’re enforcing ‘controlled crying’ on her. When she wakes up howling in the middle of the night, one of us will go into her room, pick her up, give her a quick cuddle to calm her and then put her straight back down. This often elicits a resumed bout of wailing, we leave her for a few minutes and then repeat the process until she finally gets herself to sleep. (Thankfully the boys are such sound sleepers that the racket doesn’t even cause them to stir, much less wake up.)
The idea is that Kara gradually weans herself off her parental dependency and learns to get herself back to sleep without intervention, but without feeling totally abandoned. We’re still there for her but a line is drawn to reset her night-time expectations.
For Heather, who has been in a permanent sleep-starved state for the past ten months, it’s a heart-breaking process. She has to lie in our bedroom and fight every maternal instinct to tend to her distressed daughter, counting down minutes which seem like hours before going back in. Then she has to have the strength to walk away when the crying resumes.
I have the easiest job of all for a number of reasons. Firstly our arrangement is that, because Heather always wakes up first – I make the boys look like light sleepers – she will take the first couple of turns at dealing with Kara before calling me in for reinforcement. Secondly, I have no problem keeping my emotional response in check when the crying begins – presumably I lack the relevant heartstring-tugging hormones a mother has – and so I find it easier to stay strong for both of us and stick to the plan. And thirdly, I find it easy to doze between turns. (Either Heather, who can’t sleep through it, prods me awake at the appointed time, or I set a timer on my phone to prompt me.)
It also helps that Kara is the only one of our three kids who at this age has held me on an equal footing to their mother. Isaac and Toby were mummy’s boys until they were two but, as I’ve noted before, Kara is a daddy’s girl. So, whereas before I was relegated to the role of bench-warming Support-o-Dad, now I’m on the pitch from the start – or at the very least I’m Game-Changing-Substitute-Dad.
A couple of nights now I’ve taken over from Heather, and Kara has responded and gone to sleep almost straight away. I really don’t know why – and I wouldn’t dream of assuming that it’s 100% my doing. It may be that we change over at just the right moment where she’s ready to sleep of her own accord, so it doesn’t matter who picks her up. Perhaps the comfort of seeing both parents is enough to reassure her all is well. Or maybe it is the father/daughter bond and my generally less stressed demeanour that conquer all. (We’ll have to see if it still works when I do the first stint, I suppose.) Whatever. It doesn’t matter why and it doesn’t matter who, as long as it works.
Although I hesitate to declare a trend from just two data points, already I think we’re seeing an improvement. Last night (35 minutes) was less drawn-out than the night before (an hour), and hopefully tonight will see a further step forward. It’s a painful process for all involved and it’s giving me a very tiny taster of what it’s like to be an always knackered breast-feeding mother, but I’m happy that I can help out in some way. And also because I’d do anything for my little girl.